'Leap of Faith's' long, hard road to Broadway

Turning movie into musical took 10 years for couple

Screenwriter Janus "Jannie" Cercone sums up the difference between working in film and live theater: "Movies are for pussies. Musicals are hard." Cercone and her husband, Michael Manheim, know what they are talking about. They have taken their 1992 movie "Leap of Faith," which she wrote and Manheim co-produced for Paramount, and made it into a stage musical starring Brooke Shields and Raul Esparza. Now in previews, it opens Oct. 3 at the Ahmanson, perhaps on the way to Broadway.

Manheim remembered being on the movie's set in Texas when a gospel choir was rehearsing a scene in a church where the lead character, Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin), was about to preach.

"Jannie and I turned to each other and said, 'This should be a musical,' " Manheim recalled.

It wasn't, and the movie wasn't successful at the box office or with critics. But the idea of a musical was planted. It wasn't until 2000 that they got serious about fulfilling that dream.

Their first call was to longtime friend and composer Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast," "Little Mermaid"), who with eight Oscars has more than any other living person. A veteran of theater ("Little Shop of Horrors"), he's also been nominated twice for Tonys.

The three had taken a memorable trip to New Orleans in the mid-1990s to research a movie project that never came to fruition, but they returned determined to one day do something built around their love of gospel music. So when Cercone, who once worked as a classical violinist, called about making "Leap of Faith" into a musical, Menken quickly agreed.

"In our very first meeting," Cercone said, "Alan said, 'You know musicals take about 10 years.' I thought he was kidding. 'Yeah, right. You're so funny.' And here we are 10 years later."

For this Hollywood power couple, the experience was not only long, it also involved a steep learning curve. "In movies as a producer, I'm used to being the first one in and the last one out," Manheim said, "and being equally involved from a creative and business standpoint.

"In the theater, the traditional role of the producer is focused on the business functions of securing the money and the theater. In movies, the credit for the person who does the functions of theater producer would be executive producer -- somebody who puts the money together and key business components but isn't involved in the creative part at all. Ask a lot of people who have Tonys for producing what they did, and the answer is they wrote a check. Period."

Cercone and Menken began shaping the musical's concept with a lyricist in Canada, but she dropped out after a year because of scheduling conflicts. At Cercone's urging, Menken called frequent collaborator Glenn Slater and asked him to watch the 1992 movie and then meet in New York with the couple.

"This whole marriage was made in an afternoon," Menken said.

Not everything went as smoothly. Manheim had to clear the rights, which were split between Cercone, as screenwriter, and Paramount. At first, he couldn't even get the studios' attention. "They didn't think it was in their corporate interests to bend down and pick up the few shekels that might be thrown off from the musical," Manheim said. "This was before the success of 'Wicked.' "

When he did engage Paramount, new problems arose. "They were trying to figure out what position to have in terms of musical theater," Manheim said, "and they were figuring it out on our project, which is not a fun position to be in. They saw every single thing as a precedent."

Manheim realized he needed help, starting with a theater attorney in New York, and he reached out to other experienced theater producers. He teamed up with the Endgame Entertainment group in Los Angeles, led by James D. Stern and Douglas Meyer, and the Frankel Group in New York, which includes Richard Frankel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh and Thomas Viertel.

"In the theater, we producers are the studio," Stern said. "There's not a distributor. We are the distributor, the marketers and the creative producers. We're all of it, so a lot of skill sets go into it."

Another huge difference is financial. In movies, Manheim noted, "deals are almost always front-loaded: How much money can I get now? Because there is rarely a back end. In theater, there is no front end. I mean, there isn't any money. And if the show flops, there is no money. If it's a hit, there is real money to be made."

Said Cercone: "I've worked on this show for 10 years and been paid zero."

Meanwhile, the story, music and lyrics were starting to take form. "The hardest work on a musical is not the dialogue," Cercone said, "it's the structure. How do you adapt this as a musical instead of just a film story? The first big change was from simply the exploration of a man's philosophical and spiritual awakening to a love story. The biggest leap of faith you can take is the one you take when you fall in love."

The first staged reading was in 2005, and "the reception was great," Manheim said. "My partners, who had produced 'Hairspray' and "A Little Night Music,' said this was the most positive reaction they've seen to a musical at that stage."

This inspired the producers to bring in potential backers to staged readings in a rehearsal room off Times Square, without sets or props and everyone on folding chairs. "Jannie describes them as the people who don't clap," Manheim said. "It's like looking at an oil painting out there. But this time they were laughing and sobbing at the end, and the place erupted into a standing ovation."

For their first choice of a director, they reached out to Taylor Hackford, the producer of "La Bamba" and director of "Ray." "Even though he hadn't directed a musical before," Manheim said, 'he had [done love stories and musicals] that made him an appealing fit."

As choreographer, they hired Rob Ashford, who had won a Tony for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 2002, and Esparza was cast in the lead role. But the recession hit in 2008, and a number of potential backers dropped out. Then Hackford had scheduling problems and exited.

He was replaced by Ashford, who became both choreographer and director and ended up re¬staging much of the show. It was Ashford who brought in Shields as the female lead. Shields had done musicals, including "Cabaret," but always as a replacement. This was to be the first part she would originate.

Musicals require extensive out of town tryouts, and the Ahmanson's Center Theater Group was enthusiastic, Manheim said. "They leaped at the opportunity to get involved," he said.

Robin Wagner, who did the original "Chorus Line," was hired to do the design. William Ivey Long was picked to do costumes and Donald Holder, who had done "Lion King" on stage, for the lighting.

One day, a grimacing Shields showed up with her hand taped up.

"She didn't realize it was broken," Manheim said. "She wrapped it herself. At one point I went in and said, 'Brooke, you need to have your hand looked at.' We gave her the name of a doctor. Sure enough it was broken, and the doctor said it was amazing that her hand had set the right way because of how she instinctively taped it. She was a real trouper."

Next, the previews set off intense changes. "The audience becomes a key component of the process," Manheim said. "After the first previews, there were cuts and trims. That meant if music was involved, it had to be re-orchestrated, recopied and put in front of everybody. This is not like a speedboat. It's like an ocean liner that has to be turned around."

Manheim was making adjustments as well. "He had the toughest role you can imagine," Menken said. "He's married to the original writer, who is writing the book for the musical and had a learning curve to go through. There were bumps in the road along the way in getting to where we are. He had to be a producer and a husband. That's tough."

The changes will continue until Oct. 3 and beyond, perhaps all the way to New York. "The risk factor on Broadway is much greater," Stern said. "For movies, you mitigate risk by selling rights. There is no mitigated risk on Broadway. It's all risk. So you have to be willing to take that leap of faith."
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